Follow the money: Billions of dollars pour into top American universities

Billions of dollars flow to universities as donations from Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; According to a report by an American research institute, academic institutions that received money from Arab countries have had 300% more antisemitic incidents 

Tzippy Shmilovitz, New York|
On the weekend of October 7, after learning of the Hamas attack, the then-president of the University of Pennsylvania Liz Magill wrote an Instagram post about her dog. Marc Rowan, CEO of the giant equity firm Apollo Global Management, a Jew, and a graduate of UPenn who over the years has donated to the university more than 50 million dollars, couldn't believe his eyes. A short time later, when the university issued a lukewarm condemnation, Rowan was infuriated. He said the response to the Hamas attacks was not as strong as the condemnations of the killing of George Floyd and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. In response, he decided to use his power and money he had accumulated since graduating.
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Pro-Israel rally at UCLA
(Photo: David Swanson)
Rowan, chair of the board of advisers at Penn’s Wharton School, said, that if the university wants something, it can forcefully say it. Rowan said he won’t give more unless Magill steps down. In addition, he called for alumni and supporters to send UPenn $1 donations. When more intense pressure was added, Magill did resign.
For Rowan, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes to be nearly $6 billion, UPenn's response to the events of October 7 was the final straw. Very shortly before the Hamas attack, Rowan and another prominent alumni Ronald Lauder - President of the World Jewish Congress - had already clashed with the university when it hosted a Palestine Writes Literature Festival they believed showed the university was tolerant of antisemitism. Penn acknowledged that some of the speakers have a documented history of engaging in antisemitism but allowed the festival to take place anyway. After Magill resigned, Rowan went one step further and sent an email calling for a change in the school's "culture", including reservations as to the way students are admitted to the university.
Rowan was not alone. David Magerman, owner of a hedge-fund who has donated millions to UPenn, was in Israel on October 7. When his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, put out a statement a few days later that called the assault “horrific” but didn’t explicitly condemn Hamas, Magerman sent a letter to the university leaders, saying he cuts his ties with Penn: "I am deeply ashamed of my association with the University of Pennsylvania. I refuse to donate another dollar to Penn. Jews have played an extraordinary role in the history and legacy of the University of Pennsylvania. And Jews have benefitted from their affiliation with Penn. But regardless of the economic and social value of a Penn or Wharton degree, there is no place for self-respecting Jewish people at an institution that supports evil", he wrote.
October 7 was truly a watershed moment for many affluent Jewish donors, many of whom belong to the right-conservative wing and had complaints about the progressive atmosphere prevalent on campuses long before that. Perhaps the most significant symbolic disconnection of Jewish donors was that of Harvard University's Wexner Foundation. Billionaire Leslie Wexner and his wife have donated more than $42 million to the university over the years, but the notable importance of the foundation was a program it funded at the school for Israeli students. After October 7, a group of about 1,600 Jewish Harvard alumni threatened to withdraw donations.
Len Blavatnik, controlling shareholder of Israel’s Channel 13, who's fortune is estimated at $32 billion, also announced he was holding back donations to Harvard until the university addresses antisemitism on campus and ensures that Jewish students are protected. It is yet unclear whether the billionaire who has donated at least $270 million to Harvard, resumed his donations.
Last week, billionaire Robert Kraft (net worth of more than 11 billion dollars), the owner of New England Patriots football team and founder of the 'Foundation to Combat Antisemitism', said he would stop giving money to Columbia University.
Another Columbia alum Billionaire Leon Cooperman, whose fortune is estimated at 3 billion dollars, also said he was suspending the donations. "These kids at the colleges have s--- for brains," Cooperman said, " I've given to Columbia probably about $50 million over many years and I'm going to suspend my giving."
The reality in which numerous high-profile donors to Ivy League universities in the U.S. have threatened to close their checkbooks if their demands are not met is nothing new. Donations are critical for any American university, and for the wealthy alumni it is an opportunity to give something back, to stroke their egos, and in recent years, to concentrate more power in their hands, and when it comes to the Jewish community in the U.S., this issue is even more essential.
There are a multitude of factors for the rise of antisemitism in the U.S., but one of them is that Jews no longer receive treatment as a persecuted minority, despite everything that history says; the main reason being the incredible integration and economic success of Jews in America, which have no parallels among other minorities.
According to "Forbes", almost half of the most generous philanthropists in the U.S. in 2022 are Jews: among the first 25 on the list, 12 billionaires were with Jewish backgrounds, a dramatic overrepresentation when compared to the proportion of Jews in the overall U.S. population, which consists of those who have at least one Jewish grandparent, accounting for only 4.5%. This success derives mainly from a high academic education, which entails a real desire to contribute back, which automatically leads to great power, but inevitably also leads to a backlash. And in this situation - a backlash and its results – is where we're at, half a year since October 7.

The reconciliation after 9/11

Hollywood producer David Geffen, Steven Spielberg's partner for many years, is worth over $8 billion. Even on this scale, the $150 million donation he made in 2021 to the Yale University School of Drama in New Haven, Connecticut, is considered very generous. As a result, Yale announced that the drama school, which is considered the best in America, will be tuition-free.
This contribution had one condition though: The school, which trained Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and countless playwrights and directors, among others, will be renamed the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University. Many alumni and faculty members at Yale didn't like it, stating that this is a renowned institution, built on the contributions of its graduates to the American theater, not a brand to be put up for auction. But Yale decided that it was worth the price.
Three years later, the storm has long subsided. A young man who is willing to identify himself only as Oman, a Muslim-American student, points to the school and claims that this is an example of how the major universities in the U.S. are biased in favor of Israel. He immediately swears that he has nothing against Jews ("I have Jewish relatives") and insists that criticizing the "genocide that Israel is committing in Gaza is not antisemitism."
One can argue about what is happening in Gaza, but it has nothing to do with the fact that the Yale Theater is named after a Jewish donor. Making this connection is antisemitism.
Oman: "I'm familiar with the antisemitic stereotype that connects Jews and money, and I don't use it, but look at it from our side, walk around any elite campus in America and look at the names of the buildings, almost all of them are named after Jewish donors. You can't say it doesn't affect the curriculum and the general attitude. For many years it was impossible to protest against Israel on campuses, any small demonstration would be crushed very quickly, and this is happening even now. So, there is a bit of a backlash, which is not even very serious, it involves barely a few thousand students in all the U.S., and everyone jumps up and says it's antisemitism."
This backlash is nothing new. It is the result of a quiet process that began at the end of the 20th century - and, surprisingly, intensified after the September 11 attacks – that involved very large amounts of money poured by Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to U.S. universities. In the last decade, there has been a clear increase in the number of students from Muslim countries who are admitted to U.S. universities. These students, who are in fact a very small percentage on campuses, often lead pro-Hamas activities. They are sometimes joined by lecturers of Middle Eastern studies, whose departments often receive funding from these countries.
Under the Higher Education Act of 1965, universities are required to report any gifts or contracts from foreign entities worth $250,000 or more, but that law is rarely enforced. Universities provide little information about the sources of their donations or whether the donations are subject to conditions and requirements. The reporting of the source of donations is one of the main demands of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators on campuses these days. They are sure that such disclosure will reveal that the universities are "totally controlled by the Zionists", as a protester in Columbia said this week.
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הפגנה של ישראלים ויהודים מול שגרירות קטאר בניו יורק בקריאה לשחרור החטופים
הפגנה של ישראלים ויהודים מול שגרירות קטאר בניו יורק בקריאה לשחרור החטופים
Jews and Israelis protest in front of Qatari embassy in New York
(Photo: Liri Agami)
A 2019 U.S. Senate report described foreign spending on U.S. schools as "effectively a black hole", noting that most foreign funds flow via charities and various third parties. The whole enterprise of academic donations is a game of ego, politics, power and influence, and in recent years Middle Eastern countries joined.
Qatar, for example, has donated over five billion dollars to Ivy League universities since 1986 with most of the donations being made in the last decade. The money was meant less to influence curriculum in the U.S. but rather to entice American universities to establish branches in Doha, Qatar. The country, home to only 2.7 million people, hosted the World Cup football games, it hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, and now serves as a mediator between Israel and Hamas. Its independent foreign policy, which includes problematic support for extremist organizations, has brought it a neutral status and a great deal of power.
Since the 1990s, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Northwestern, and Texas A&M universities established campuses in Doha. After October 7, Texas A&M announced that it would close the campus it established in 2003. The university explained it was due to "heightened regional instability", but it is quite clear that this happened following severe criticism it received for its ties with a country that gives asylum to the leaders of Hamas.
The Qataris argue that what they are doing is no different from the lobbying efforts of other sovereign governments trying to have influence over high educational institutions in the U.S. They are right, but just as it is impossible to ignore the influence of Jewish names portrayed on buildings on campuses, it is impossible to ignore the huge amount of money that is coming more and more from areas that are very hostile to Israel.
The case of Saudi Arabia is even more striking. According to The New York Times, it shows that Saudi money flows to all sorts of American schools: M.I.T.’s elite peers, including Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Stanford and the California Institute of Technology; flagship public universities like Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley; institutions in oil-producing regions, like Texas A&M; and state schools like Eastern Washington University and Ball State University in Indiana.
A Saudi student who is enrolled in one of these universities, is provided with full tuition. No other nation pays for its American-based college students in the same systematic way. Most other foreign students, including the more than 300,000 from China, pay with family money and sometimes a combination of scholarships. With a population of almost 37 million, Saudi Arabia is the 41st most populous nation in the world, but with approximately 50,000 students in the United States, it is the fourth-largest source of foreign students, trailing only China, India and South Korea.
Saudi students began coming to the United States in large numbers after a 2005 meeting between Crown Prince Abdullah (Mohammed bin Salman’s uncle) and President George W. Bush at Bush’s ranch in Texas. They were seeking ways to restore warmer relations between the two countries after the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. The first pillar of a new cooperation was for the Saudis to send greater numbers of students to the U.S., and indeed they are sending more and more.
Americans are much more concerned about the flow of Chinese money and its influence on academic institutions. According to one source, China contributed $1.2 billion to American colleges between 2014 and 2020 and has spent roughly another $1 billion since 2020 – but Middle Eastern countries’ donations draw much less attention. Between 2014 and 2020, Muslim-majority countries together donated $4.86 billion to American higher-educational institutions, representing 29 percent of all foreign donations.
It should be clarified that it’s too early to make direct connection between a school’s curriculum and its donations, but the biggest recipients, such as Cornell, NYU, and Harvard tend to have large pro-Hamas elements in the anti-Israel protests.

Maintaining ties

The independent research institute NCRI published a report last November, according to which at least 200 American colleges and universities may have illegally withheld information about approximately $13 billion in contributions from foreign regimes, many of them authoritarian. The report found that from 2015-2020, institutions that accepted funding from Middle Eastern donors had, on average, 300% more antisemitic incidents than those institutions that did not.
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אוניברסיטת קולומביה בניו יורק הפגנות פרו פלשתיניות
אוניברסיטת קולומביה בניו יורק הפגנות פרו פלשתיניות
Anti-Israel protest in Columbia
According to the report, a significant portion of the funds were donated by authoritarian regimes including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, China and the United Arab Emirates, and the huge donations between 2015 and 2019 were not documented with the U.S. Department of Education. Carnegie Mellon University received the most donations from foreign entities during that period ($1.47 billion), Cornell received $1.29 billion, Harvard University reached $894 million, and MIT received $859 million. Donors from Qatar contributed the most ($2.7 billion), followed by the UK ($1.4 billion). About 1.2 billion dollars flowed from China, another 1.1 billion dollars came from Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates contributed 431 million dollars.
Cornell University in a statement to 'New York Post' noted it has received funding to operate a medical school in Qatar which has graduated more than 500 students from the Middle East, Asia and other places, including the U.S.
Mitchell Bard, author of "The Arab Lobby" and a longtime analyst of Gulf nations’ influence operations in America, told the "Financial Times" that he saw little evidence that Arab money was contributing to hostility towards Jews and Israel on campuses. "Cornell University is located in the city of Ithaca in upstate New York, and received 1.9 billion dollars to establish a medical school in Doha," said Bard, "what does that have to do with antisemitism in Ithaca?"
Although the Ivy League universities end up educating a very small number of students in the U.S., they receive huge donations from renowned billionaires. Donating to higher education has long been an almost obvious act for numerous wealthy people. Some feel it's their obligation, for others it's a way to secure their children's admission to university, and for philanthropists who have become social media stars (for example, Bill Ackman, Jewish hedge fund manager who is the founder and CEO of Pershing Square), it's just another tool in the toolbox which provides power. In the past, donors would threaten to close the checkbook if the university's football team lost, today the agenda is much broader and more political.
At least in the short term, universities like Harvard (with endowment valued at over $50 billion, representing more than the GDP of 120 countries in the world), MIT ($23.5 billion) and Penn ($21 billion) will not be particularly affected by the loss of one donor or another, even if it amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars.
MIT, for example, which a few years ago rolled out a red carpet for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, does not really need Saudi Arabia's money. It has received from Saudi sources a modest sum of 10 to 15 million dollars over the years. But it and other prestigious universities see, in the long term, an increasing importance in maintaining close ties with rich Middle Eastern countries, which will yield many donations and students, which will include, unfortunately, a young anti-Israeli generation.
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